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The coming challenges for America’s dysfunctional political system

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Political dysfunction is nothing new to America, but few could deny that over the last three years it has reached staggering heights in the US Congress. Previously-routine confirmations for judgeships, the Federal Reserve board, and lower-level political appointees aren’t just being voted down, they’re never even coming to a vote, leaving hundreds of positions vacant. The federal government almost shut down twice last year, and only after taking it to the brink of default – causing the Dow to plunge over 15% percent – did Congress finally decide to pay its bills. At this point, it wouldn’t be terribly surprising to hear news reports that Congress has run out of paper and can’t decide on whom to send to the store to get more.

Congressional scholars Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution and Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute believe that much of the rise in dysfunction can be traced to changes within the Republican Party. This makes sense: while a governing party has an incentive to get things done, an opposition party – which the Republicans have been for the last few years – has an incentive to obstruct, for two main reasons: voters tend to blame ineffectiveness on the government and, at the same time, the opposition doesn’t have a lot of say in whatever policy changes are actually produced. 

But the virulence and no-holds-barred obstruction that has characterized the GOP over the past few years appears to be different than approaches taken by either out-of-power parties in the past, leading many to think that an underlying structural trend is at play. For example, Mann and Ornstein suggest that the GOP’s intransigence is a symptom of their ideological shift to the right over the past few decades, where “while the Democrats may have moved from their 40-yard line to their 25, the Republicans have gone from their 40 to somewhere behind their goal post.” In their telling, this caused the GOP to become more ideologically rigid.

This explanation isn’t terribly convincing. As political scientist Jonathan Bernstein pointed out in a blog post, “all of Mann and Ornstein’s examples are about (…) radicalism and irresponsible behavior, not ideological extremism.” In fact, the defining characteristic of the GOP obstructionism isn’t extremism. Though there has been a rightward shift in the Republican Party, their opposition oftentimes appears to be divorced from any policy concerns at all. On the eve of Obama’s inauguration, senior GOP congressional leaders met for an hours-long strategy session to decide, in the words of Ewen MacAskill of the Guardian, on “a plan to repeatedly block Obama over the coming four years to try to ensure he would not be re-elected.” Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the Senate, famously said later on, “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” Rather than ideology, Bernstein concludes that the cause of the increased dysfunction in Congress is the dysfunction of the Republican Party itself.

To understand this critique, we have to look at the role of the political party itself – one of the primary ways that like-minded people come together to effect change in the political system. To do this, a party must be able to both gain political power and use it effectively to influence policy. Sometimes, these twin goals are in tension: early on in the Obama presidency, Republicans decided to relinquish any influence on healthcare and financial reforms for their own political – i.e. electoral – benefit. But generally, an effective political party must do both.

Two recent examples show how the Democratic Party has been able to translate political power into policy change as opposed to  the GOP’s inability to do the same. First, health reform. After the Senate passed its initial bill, the Democrats lost their filibuster-proof majority when Republican Scott Brown unexpectedly won the late-Ted Kennedy’s seat in Massachusetts. This put House Democrats in an uncomfortable situation. Now that the Senate couldn’t pass anything else, the only option was for the House to go along with its bill.

But many Democrats in the House had serious problems with it: they felt the subsidies were too low, they worried that the excise tax on high-value insurance plans would impact middle-class households, and they wanted a public insurance option. Opposition was high among the Democratic base as well, which viewed a mandate to purchase insurance without a public option as a corporate give-away, and among unions, which opposed the excise tax in part because many of their members had high-value plans. Yet the President and House  leadership – most notably Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) – were, in the end, able to rally a majority in Congress to abandon its own health reform bill and pass the Senate‘s, with only minor modifications.

A similar, but mirror, event took place last summer. The 2010 midterm election gave the Republicans a strong majority in the House and nearly a majority in the Senate, and they viewed the election as a mandate to drastically cut government spending and pare back the social safety net. By July 2011, the government was about to exhaust its borrowing authority from Congress and the Republicans saw this as a perfect opportunity to extract concessions from Obama and implement their fiscal agenda.

Both Obama and Boehner favored a “grand bargain”, in which Democrats would accept spending and entitlement cuts and Republicans would accept tax increases. In fact, there were signs that Obama desperately wanted a deal and was willing to make far more concessions than any previous Democratic president. For the Republicans, it was the chance of a lifetime.

After months of negotiating and posturing, Obama flinched and made Boehner an amazing offer: deep cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and domestic spending. All that Obama asked for in return was a promise that future tax reform would raise enough money to pay for about a quarter of the cost of the Bush tax cuts. The overall spending-to-revenue ratio would be over 80% cuts and 20% additional revenues.

But Boehner still couldn’t convince his caucus to take the deal, and in the end the debt ceiling was raised with a smaller package that cut discretionary spending but left entitlement benefits (and taxes) alone.  This legislative outcome was hardly a victory for Republicans: half of the savings came from the defense budget, of which Republicans are generally more supportive, and unlike changes to entitlement programs, caps to discretionary spending historically only stick for a few years before Congress starts waiving them.

The contrast between the two scenarios is stark. Throughout the healthcare debate, many in the Democratic Party – voters, interest groups, and members of Congress – had pledged to only support a reform that had a public option. Yet when there were no alternatives left, party leaders were able to convince the Democratic caucus to compromise and accept a partial victory – which still ended up being the biggest expansion of the social safety net in a half century.

During the debt ceiling debate, on the other hand, as Matt Bai concluded in his detailed New York Times article on the negotiations, “Obama managed to persuade his closest allies to sign off on what he wanted them to do, and Boehner didn’t, or couldn’t.” Ezra Klein of the Washington Post asked the obvious question: “Can the GOP still say ‘yes’?”

And that’s the real issue. It’s easy to hold together a political movement in opposition to something, to continually say “no”.  But it’s difficult to unite a movement in favor of specific policies and even of compromise, especially when you’ve already been saying “no” for so long.  But that is one of the main roles of political parties. But as more and more Republican members of Congress rely on power bases (like Fox News commentators and Tea Party groups funded by big donors) outside the traditional party structure, rallying behind compromise becomes increasingly difficult.

In the end, Republicans may have the last laugh. If Mitt Romney wins and Republicans take the Senate (on top of maintaining control of the House,) they will be able to reverse Obama’s legislative agenda (in particular health reform) and extend the Bush tax cuts through “reconciliation”, a procedural move that allows parties to avoid the filibuster. The implications of an Obama victory are harder to read. On the one hand, the balance of power would remain the same, but on the other hand, and if no deal were reached, Obama could allow all the Bush tax cuts to expire on January 1st, netting the government four times as much revenue as he had previously agreed to. Were he to win reelection and indicate his willingness to go over the so-called “fiscal cliff”, even rank-and-file Republicans may see the need for compromise.